The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell more than expected last week, pointing to a continued steady improvement in labor market conditions.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 27,000 to a seasonally adjusted 341,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The prior week's claims figure was revised to show 2,000 more applications received than previously reported. Economists polled by Reuters had expected claims to fall to 360,000.

A Labor Department analyst said claims for Illinois and snowstorm-hit Connecticut had been estimated. Nevertheless, because most claims are filed online, the blizzard that slammed the East Coast appeared to have little effect on the broader claims data, he said. While companies are no longer aggressively laying off workers, they appear to be in no hurry to step-up hiring against the backdrop of still lackluster demand.

COMMENTS:

TOM PORCELLI, CHIEF U.S. ECONOMIST, RBC CAPITAL MARKETS, NEW YORK:

"Because the Labor Department had to estimate some states you cannot read too much into the jobless claims data. We try not to make too much out of high frequency data such as this. This is one of the instances where probably a little skepticism is warranted. It could have easily been up or down due to the Labor Department estimates of some states, so the bottom line is that the validity of this report can easily be questioned."

ANDREW GRANTHAM, ECONOMIST, CIBC WORLD MARKETS ECONOMICS, TORONTO:

"There was a note of caution, though, as the figures for two states (Connecticut and Illinois) had to be estimated. Claims can also often fall initially following weather events such as last week's blizzard, only to rebound again afterwards. The four-week average, which strips out such weekly volatility, was also largely unchanged at 352,000, from 351,000 in the prior week. Those caveats and the fact that markets are still trying to digest the disappointing figures out of the Eurozone overnight should limit market reaction."

OMER ESINER, CHIEF MARKET ANALYST, COMMONWEALTH FOREIGN EXCHANGE, WASHINGTON:

"It is a definitely a positive number. Importantly it is below the 350 handle on initial jobless claims and adds to the view that labor market conditions are improving steadily albeit gradually. It does not mean too much of the dollar intra-day but certainly an encouraging data point with regard to the U.S. recovery."

PETER CARDILLO, CHIEF MARKET ECONOMIST, ROCKWELL GLOBAL CAPITAL, NEW YORK:

"This is consistent with the good news coming out of the employment market, signs that things are getting better. But it won't be much of a catalyst for the market this morning because of the fact that the we have a strong dollar and the news out of Europe. Investors will also be sitting on the sidelines due to the long weekend."

MARKET REACTION:

STOCKS: U.S. stock index futures held losses

BONDS: U.S. bond prices yields rose, prices pared gains

FOREX: The dollar pared losses, turned positive versus Japanese yen

GRAPHIC:

U.S. jobless claims: New claims for unemployment fell last week to 341,000. For the week ended February 2, continuing claims fell to 3.11 million, the lowest level since July 2008. http://link.reuters.com/xew34t

(Americas Economics and Markets Desk; +1-646 223-6300)